Monday, February 4, 2013

Hey, They're New to Me - My Favorite Discoveries of 2012

This is a list I awaited assembling with no small amount of anticipation. Every year, if one is a persistent and dedicated cinephile, will reveal a whole new set of favorite films, directors, movements, and aesthetics, and this was certainly no exception. While it is inevitably born somewhat from my own particular tastes (that the 1950s are the best represented here doesn't come as much of a surprise), there are at least a dozen that were the result of what happened to be playing at TCM Fest earlier this year, or Noir Fest that same month, or assigned to me to review on DVD, or something that was selected by my girlfriend or one of my friends during our weekly movie night, or something that just happened to be playing at Cinefamily or the New Beverly or any of the wonderful institutions in Los Angeles. Cinephilia is as much an investigation towards one's own objects of affection as it is a revelation, one that is haphazardly curated by professionals, novices, and total blind luck. So while it's little surprise that Rumble Fish was probably my favorite film I saw all year, there's one film on here I might've put off forever had a girl my friend was dating not selected it one evening. And so it goes.

I didn't rank them. Aside from a few, it hardly matters. I'm pretty sure there are fifty films here, the fifty that meant the most to me, were the most resonant, or perhaps just the ones to which I most wanted to call attention. Who knows. I've placed them in reverse chronological order, largely out of a personal preference for the distant past, though it became interesting to see established modes of operation echo in achievements sometimes only a few years, and sometimes decades earlier. So there's no better place to start than...

Khrustalyov, My Car! (Aleksei German; 1998)

When I wrote about the film shortly after seeing it, I concentrated on the more thrillingly stylistic elements therein, because really, what the hell do I know of Russian history, let alone an obscure "Doctor's Plot" to kill Joseph Stalin. But if one ever needed proof that the plot is immaterial in appreciating a film, boy this is it, because I adored every confounding second. With a nearly cartoonish sense of humor and the patience of Bela Tarr, it's at least a singular experience I will not soon forget.

Sátántangó (Bela Tarr; 1994)

There are certain films, and I'm sure some of you out there can relate, that seem to exist with you long before you see them, to the point that the actual viewing is almost obligatory. Well, when you're faced with a seven-and-a-half-hour, very slow Hungarian film, one must endeavor to make the viewing something far more. I was immensely pleased when Cinefamily hosted such an event, with a potluck to boot, so much so that I bought the requisite membership purely because of it (that purchase has since paid out exponentially). The film itself is inevitably less than when I'd built it up to be over the past ten years (yep), but to say that diminishes its greatness would be an act of pure selfishness. All I've thought since was how I long to revisit it.

Three Colors - Blue (Krzyztof Kieslowski; 1993)

My adoration of Krzyztof Kieslowski starts with The Double Life of Veronique, and as yet to be matched, but man, Blue comes awfully close.

Tremors (Ron Underwood; 1990)

One would have to struggle mightily to find a piece of low-rent genre filmmaking as pleasurable as this. As simple and inexplicable a premise as they come - underground monster terrorize a tiny town - results in several beautifully imaginative set pieces, a collection of quickly-, but determinedly-sketched characters, and as simply delightful a 90-some minutes as the cinema is likely to provide.

Miami Connection (Y.K. Kim, Woo-sang Park; 1987)

Separating the experience of Miami Connection from the crowd with which one watches it is futile - the movie IS the crowd, and vice-versa. The stakes are so low, the action scenes so false, but the spirit so buoyant that it can withstand anything. Even your uncontrollable laughter. I don't believe in "so bad it's good," but something happened in the creation of this film that simply does not happen on many other sets. Something akin to magic.

Rumble Fish (Francis Ford Coppola; 1983)

This was a big deal for me. I've always loved the formal rigor of Coppola's 1970s films, but it's the naked emotionalism of what came after that really made him one of my favorite filmmakers, and certainly among the best of those still living. Yet I hadn't seen one that totally married the two, until Rumble Fish, a film so relentlessly vulnerable it could reduce you to tears with a blink, but so formally audacious that its closest kin exists only decades prior. I could've watched it for days, so desperately did I want to live in Coppola's totally singular world of mourning bikers, too-cool hipsters, prophetic deli clerks, and the agony with which some exit their youth. I've never seen anything quite like it, and I hesitate to say the cinema could withstand much more of it, but viewing it for the first time was one of those total realizations of a cinema of which I had only dreamed.

My Dinner with Andre (Louis Malle; 1981)

That most infamous of pretentious art films is also one of the most joyous, as interesting for the ideas proposed during the conversation as it is for the fact of their presentation. Further proof that Louis Malle could do anything.

Mon Oncle d'Amerique (Alain Resnais; 1980)

I wrote at length about this film when I saw it all the way back in February, so any particular observations are best left to that. Suffice to say that I consider Resnais an absolute genius, and I wouldn't trade one bizarre second of this, now among my most beloved of his works, for the world.

Kramer vs. Kramer (Robert Benton; 1979)

The American cinema, if such an outrageous industry as this could be said to serve a single artistic purpose, is rarely better than when it buckles down and commits to a particular mode of storytelling. I hesitate to say Kramer vs. Kramer is the height of a particular form of dramatic storytelling, but it's such a pleasure to sit through and so effective in its particular brand of manipulation, never mind the perfect exhibition for Dustin Hoffman, at as close to the height of his abilities as one could ask for, and this film asks him to do quite a bit.

Celine and Julie Go Boating (Jacque Rivette; 1974)

Another film that seemed to exist with me long before I actually saw it. I'd been curious about this film since high school, when I can distinctly remember writing its title (along with films like The Conversation and The Deer Hunter) in a little notebook, the kind I used to carry with me everywhere before the smartphone eliminated its need (once, while waiting for a movie to start, a man several seats down asked if I had a pen he could borrow; when I said that I did and handed it to him, he replied, "you look like the kind of guy who has a pen on him"). But I digress, and so too does the film, a three-hour experience I could never fully account for, let alone here, but which creates the kind of cinematic space one longs for, in which truly bizarre ideas can coexist with a range of performances one rarely encounters. It wasn't until I saw Girl Walk // All Day that I could even think of a film from the past decade that lets its actresses do this much.

Phantom of the Paradise (Brian De Palma; 1974)

If someone were to describe the cinema of Brian De Palma to me, I would inevitably exclaim him to be among my favorite filmmakers, and yet my actual encounter with that cinema has left me considerably less certain. I adore elements, movements, and moments, but rarely the whole - except Phantom of the Paradise. The true outlet for all his gonzo sensibilities, Phantom is a lifetime of cinema packed into 90 minutes, a total flushing of the narrative prerogative in favor the the performative, the exhibitive, and truly unhinged.

Minnie and Moskowitz (John Cassavetes; 1971)

I'm coming around on Cassavetes, and this was a major turning point. Not only an apt showcase for his particular brand of improvised drama, but the rare film that made me laugh uncontrollably for a solid five minutes, or however long Minnie's date with Zelmo lasts. It's also just a great portrait of Los Angeles during a particular time of which I never tire in the cinema (see also: Altman's great California Split, or The Long Goodbye for that matter). And if Seymour Cassel gives a better performance in some other film, please let me know.

Four Nights of a Dreamer (Robert Bresson; 1971)

Achingly romantic and genuinely ironic; for people like me who often see life through both lenses, this is a deeply affective, yet surprisingly agreeable film.

The Trilogy of Life (Pier Paolo Pasolini, 1971-1974)

I have written and spoken about this far more than I could've anticipated, and oh how I wish common decency did not prevent me from posting some of the more outrageous imagery present herein, but one must simply encounter all three of these for oneself. Far more spiritually in-tune than their bawdy reputation may suggest, they represent the joy that only total expression can yield. This year provided me with a major introduction to Pasolini, and now I can hardly get enough.

The Conformist (Bernardo Bertolluci; 1970)

You know...The Conformist! Opulence at its very best.

Faces (John Cassavetes; 1968)

Not the kind of leveling experience you want to take a date to, but a grand exploration of the human effect that results in staring into the abyss. I admit a fault of mine to not be terribly overwhelmed by character-centric pieces, but this...this is something else.

Seconds (John Frankenheimer; 1966)

James Wong Howe, still kicking cinematography ass forty years into his career, is but one reason to watch this truly unusual slice of welcome-to-the-counterculture cinema. John Frankenheimer can do anything.

The Hawks and the Sparrows (Pier Paolo Pasolini; 1966)

This was indeed a big year for Pasolini and myself, and this really kicked things off. Wonderfully blending Pasolini's amateurish approach to filmmaking with his undeniable visual prowess, the result is a sort of formally off-kilter religious icon. There are passages in this film as spiritually elating as anything you'll find in church, and with a wit to boot, but when we take a detour to meet a woman so destitute, she's kept her children thinking it's nighttime for four days because she can't feed them, Pasolini opens up a whole other world. There are a handful of films to which I forever indebted, and this - for reasons I still can't entirely classify or quantify - is now among them.

Daisies (Věra Chytilová; 1966)

I have the pleasure of investigating several films from the Czech New Wave thanks to a very cool Eclipse set that Criterion put out, and it should come as little surprise to anyone with a passing understanding of the movement that this is the one that stood out. Sure, you've got all those grand feminist overpinnings with which I am very much taken, but it's the blow-out-the-doors formal daring of the film that's made it a classic. Marie I and Marie II, as they're known, announce immediately at the opening of the film that they're going to go on a romp, disrupting all that is good and proper at every turn, and proceed to do just that for ninety-odd minutes. We're just lucky enough to be along for the ride.

Yearning (Mikio Naruse; 1964)

My time spent watching and reviewing (roughly) a film every week for CriterionCast has been mighty fruitful, and of all the wonderful films I've talked about over there, Mikio Naruse's Yearning was by far the standout. Naruse really had the melodrama nailed down as a particular genre, with its own set of storytelling conventions, and he had a way of turning the barest of scenarios into a very engaging story - in this case, setting the tale of a widow who falls in love with her brother-in-law amidst the rapidly-modernizing postwar era. Naruse rarely lets go of the effects of the war, and even in 1964, they're still being felt, as a generation coming into adulthood has to live up to the memory of their older family members who died bravely in a war in which they were too young to take part. Add to that a small family business struggling against the arrival of a gigantic, westernized supermarket, and tension bears down from all sides; where else to turn but love, however taboo? It's a fascinating film, one of the best Naruse ever made, and one I truly wish got more attention.

La Jetée/Sans Soleil (Chis Marker; 1962, 1983)

It's perhaps absurd to place these together, as, aside from their filmmaker and some subsequent thematic concerns, they share little in common. La Jetée is a short sci-fi film made up (nearly) entirely of stills, while Sans Soleil is a free-ranging travelogue spanning five countries and innumerable philosophies. But since Criterion put them together in a Blu-ray set, they are somewhat inseparable to me, and while their ideas and aesthetic daring are what tends to jump out, I just want to throw some love and say that I found both incredibly moving experiences. In some ways their formal devices - stills in La Jetée, an omniscient narrator in Sans Soleil - make them alienating, but the moment-to-moment pleasures are so elemental, so immediately accessible, that I found them very easy to drown in.

West Side Story (Robert Wise; 1961)

While I tend to bemoan Stephen Sondheim for his love of falsely invoking tragedy (no exception here), when West Side Story is cooking, it's ablaze. I continue to swoon over everything Robert Wise was capable of as a director (if you've never seen The Set-Up, do yourself the biggest favor), and he brings all the artificiality to this that a musical could ask for, and all the formal rigor for which he'd already been known. I knew from the opening number, full of tracking shots and sharply-angled widescreen portraits, that this was a real love-at-first-sight situation, and I only fell deeper and deeper. And I will say, seeing it in 70mm did not hurt one bit.

Letter Never Sent (Mikhail Kalatozov; 1959)

A discovery for many thanks to Criterion issuing it on a stunning Blu-ray edition, this - like The Cranes Are Flying - is so forceful a piece of Soviet filmmaking you'll be ready to make a five-year plan of your own. Mostly revolving around watching this film again and again. Its out-of-control camerawork and conflicts (a forest fire really makes you question the extent of the illusion) serve to aptly express the racing emotions within our protagonists, torn by a conflict that's been explored in everything from 1934's L'Atalante to this year's The Loneliest Planet, filtered through a lens of nationalist pride it'd be difficult to find anywhere else. As much a portrait of yearning as the so-titled film discussed above, its bitter-fight-for-survival narrative grounds these emotions firmly in the elemental dirt, at once accentuating and diminishing them.

Anatomy of a Murder (Otto Preminger; 1959)

This is the American cinema, man. Preminger uses its narrative to direct our sympathies, because the moral compass has almost no presence here. There is absolutely no doubt that Paul Biegler (James Stewart, in perhaps his greatest performance) is defending a guilty man (Ben Gazzara as Lt. Frederick Manion); even if the fact that he killed the man who raped his wife makes it somewhat justified in our eyes ("the unwritten law," as Manion calls it), we recognize that the legal hoops they'll have to jump through are just that - hoops. And even if we think what he did was justified, it doesn't change the fact that maybe Manion is a bit of a rat, maybe his wife is a bit of a floozy, and maybe their marriage was far from perfect. And maybe it was jealousy motivating him more than righteous fury. Like I said, this is not the black-and-white morality to court, or the cinema of the time, demands, but it's the one we live with everyday, and it is beautifully rendered here at every turn.

The Music Room (Satyajit Ray; 1958)

The pleasures of this film are so elementally cinematic, one can easily lose track of the blatant moralizing going on, as Ray's protagonist, Roy (Chhabi Biswa, in a performance that spans everything), spends himself silly to make himself sillier, and is eventually (or in the cinematic space, immediately) left in ruin. The King of a castle gone completely to ruin, the film opens on him atop a mighty house that's hardly appointed at all, just loosely tended to by a handful of servants as Roy reflects on, essentially, his own worthlessness, both to himself and to society at large. I saw this film exactly once, much earlier last year, and still cannot shake the main theme, nor would I particularly want to.

The Lovers (Louis Malle; 1958)

It's worth saying - Louis Malle can do anything. Perhaps now most famous for sparking the Supreme Court's definition of pornography - "I know it when I see it" - I cannot possibly overstate the elegance of its direction nor the potency of its emotions, which are so delicately hinted at that their eventual explosion comes as much as a jarring interlude as a welcome return. It's not hard to see just what the Court found so obscene, but given the benefit of time and a thousand perfume commercial rip-offs, it now appears downright poetic and moving even as it is undoubtedly erotic.

Bonjour Tristesse (Otto Preminger; 1958)

Like The Lovers, this is a film of remarkable intelligence, in some ways in spite of and in others because of the manner with which its melodrama is executed. Jean Seberg's performance is pointedly theatric, expressing the false sense of worldliness all teenagers inevitably feel. It makes her terribly charming company, but it also makes the downfall she inevitably causes (the emotional tenor of which is communicated immediately) all the more tragic. Shot in both black-and-white (for the "present") and color (for the recent past), Preminger is being pretty up-front about the way this will all turn out, but tragedy never was rooted in unexpected sadness - the tragedy, as always, is in knowing what's coming and being unable to stop it.

The Cranes Are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov; 1957)

One of the pleasures of Hulu Plus is putting on a film such as this that you really know very little about and being instantly, totally swept away. Kalatozov is really owed a more legendary status than he deserves, and his sweeping, swirling, speedy camerawork here is yet more evidence of that, but there's little question that he was gifted enormously by the presence of one of the most cinematic faces of all time. Tatyana Samoylova, twenty-three at the time of the film's release, is given a prominence here that is not similarly afforded her in Letter Never Sent, and rightfully established her as a world star, even though she would only go on to make fourteen more films over fifty years (she turned 78 last year). Representing, in many ways, everyone who remained home while Russia was embroiled in World War II, the path of waiting for one's loved one to return from war is far from easy, and Kalatozov walks a very fascinating line between the nationalism that guided Russian cinema of the time and the doubts anyone would feel when embroiled in such a conflict. That he conveys a scope of time and emotion rarely explored in films twice as long (this runs only 97 minutes) is but one part of the film's success.

Lola Montès (Max Ophuls; 1955)

Wow, so this is everything, right? There's nothing harder than making a framing device really cook, but Ophuls, screenwriter Annette Wademant, and lead actress Martine Carol weave Lola's life together beautifully, introducing a hefty touch of tension into the "present" via her crumbling health as she performs a circus act based on her own life. There's really nothing else like it. Ophuls pulls out all the stops for what would ultimately, sadly become his last film (he died of a heart attack two years later) - his first in widescreen, and first in color, and what extravagant use of both.

Artists and Models (Frank Tashlin; 1955)

I know, right? How much freaking fun is this? I'll tell you how much freaking fun this is - there's an entire subplot about Soviet spies that doesn't even get introduced until the last act, and there is still enough insanity in the first two for it all to keep pace. This was some of the most fun I had in a theater all year.

Casque d'Or (Jacques Becker; 1952)

When you can't get Marcel Carné... But seriously, Becker on his own whole plane here, commonalities though he may share with his contemporaries. Real paradise found and lost stuff, with a hefty dose of crime and some character design so strong it could be a comic book.

Park Row (Samuel Fuller; 1952)

Did anyone ever call Sam Fuller "Two-Fisted Sam"? I totally would, if I didn't think he'd punch me with both of them. This is a two-fisted newspaper movie, as pure as folklore comes, from the stories young Fuller was told when he served his time as a newspaperman, and made with the total clarity of someone who refused to answer to anyone (he produced this with his own cash, losing everything in the process, after 20th Century Fox head Darryl Zanuck suggested it be made as a Technicolor musical). The result might be a little too pure for some, leaving you grasping for a chaser, but I'll take ten of these larger-than-life tales any day.

Early Summer (Yasujiro Ozu; 1951)

Because why watch one Ozu film when you can see them all? Honestly, I still have much Ozu to go, but this sort of beautifully blends all the elements I love of those I have seen, maintains the formal rigor and patience, and plays beautifully - funny at times, deeply melancholy at others, and totally memorable. A scene in which the grandparents recognize that they're living through the last truly joyous time in their life pretty much sums it all up.

Caged (John Cromwell; 1950)

The nice thing about Caged is that, while it is quite a bit better-produced and more finely-honed than its trashy premise might suggest (taglines include "Will She Come Out a Woman or a Wildcat?" and "You Don't Know Women Until You Know Them Without Men!"), it's still trashy enough to make you feel the dirt and grime of the prison experience.

The Black Book (Anthony Mann; 1949)

French Revolution noir, you say? I'm not kidding with that, either. Usually that kind of gimmick would be, well, gimmicky, all terribly knowing and arch and all that, but being made in 1949, Anthony Mann didn't have the perspective to make a film that way (well, at least not in this regard; there's some French Revolution humor towards the end that goes down a little sour); this is just the way they were making pictures. And what a picture this is. Centering around the search for the titular book, this has everything you'd want from a film noir - dangerous dames, too-tough men, wild set pieces, and deep, black shadows - wrapped in a very unfamiliar, but much more deadly, environment. A gorgeous, ripping yarn.

The Great Gatsby (Elliot Nugent; 1949)

Okay, so here's the thing about the 1949 version of The Great Gatsby (which is now up on YouTube but about which I'm gonna be an ass and make a point of saying that I saw in a theater, on a 35mm print) - it's not particularly "good" in that way that you want any film to be "cohesive" and this film to "represent something of the novel." Much of Fitzgerald's thematic concerns, and certainly the aesthetics of his prose, are pretty quickly discarded with. But I'll be damned if this wasn't as perfectly-cast as they come, with Alan Ladd making an amazing Gatsby all the way down to Howard Da Silva representing George Wilson so perfectly I dare say not another performer should touch him. I was mostly unfamiliar with the rest of the cast, but it's kind of beautiful that at least that aspect of the film came together this perfectly, and that, in this way at least, it represents something of the novel that few films ever could.

Letter From an Unknown Woman (Max Ophuls; 1948)

Ophuls strikes again! When I saw this during TCM Fest back in April, there were still no signs that it would be released on DVD or Blu-ray, but I'm happy to say that's no longer the case, as anyone with $25 can pick up their very own copy. As well they should. It isn't easy to pull off this level of extremely heightened tragic melodrama, but I was totally devastated by the end of this.

The Macomber Affair (Zoltan Korda; 1947)

Sadly, this one remains unavailable on any sort of home viewing format, but should it turn up at some movie house somewhere, man, do yourself a favor. Zoltan Korda is a tremendously underrated director, and this is the best of the few films of his I've seen, one that brings his love of wildlife into a more immediate, psychological, and emotionally resonant piece of work. Adapted from, and expanding on, an Ernest Hemingway short story, it tells the story of a rich man who's killed under suspicious circumstances while out on an African hunt, the wife who detested him, and the hunter who led their expedition. Gregory Peck plays the hunter, and is far from the stand-up guy we know from To Kill a Mockingbird, and Joan Bennett firmly leaves her wisecracking blonde phase behind for good as the wife at the center of the unspoken love triangle. As Leonard Maltin said in his introduction, the picture runs 89 minutes, but it'd be astounding if one were to emerge feeling they were cheated in any way.

Scarlet Street (Fritz Lang; 1945)

I hope nobody will doubt my love for Fritz Lang when I say that I prefer his American work to the films he made in Germany, and while I can champion Fury and The Big Heat all day (and all of the night), this will be my new exhibit A. Edward G. Robinson plays Christopher "Chris" Cross(!), a mild-mannered cashier at a retailer who spends his free time developing his work as a painter(!). He soon becomes entangled with a prostitute (Joan Bennett again) and her truly scummy boyfriend (Dan Duryea, of course), say they take advantage of his talent would be putting it far too lightly for where this film goes. This is the blackest of black films noir, a film bereft of any of the distancing devices other films of the era employed, leaving you stuck only in the regret and misery and inescapable pit of despair.

Cover Girl (Charles Vidor; 1944)

I don't know if there's been a sufficient account made of this small, but very potent, group of films I call "melancholy musicals" (I'd include also It's Always Fair Weather and Meet Me in St. Louis). They're not outright despairing, but they touch on themes surrounding impermanence with such a light, graceful touch that they may end up leveling you, all the while remaining all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas. Cover Girl is maybe a little sillier that those aforementioned films, as it's about a chorus girl's (Rita Hayworth) rise to stardom via becoming a magazine's cover girl, but the handling of this transition is so exquisite and grounded. The nightclub owner (Gene Kelly) wants her to stay, but doesn't want to stand in her way, even though she would love to stay if only he did ask, and needless to say their feelings for each other are not strictly professional. It very carefully manages the subtext of the way we treat each other, while allowing the musical numbers (particularly one knockout in which Kelly dances with himself) to express everything the characters do not. Kelly must be given co-credit as the auteur - on loan from MGM, Columbia gave him nearly free reign, particularly in the dancing, and this is a great display for a Kelly who was full of ideas and hungry to make an impact.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger; 1943)

In her introduction to the screening of this (in its new restoration) at the Academy, Thelma Schoonmaker said that Powell used to introduce this film simply by saying, "oh, you lucky people," and I'm at something of a loss to expound on his input. This isn't even my favorite Powell/Pressburger film (that'd be The Red Shoes), or even my second-favorite (that'd be Black Narcissus), but are you kidding me with this? Nothing has a right to be this good.

The Gang's All Here (Busby Berkeley; 1943)

Mostly a display for Berkeley's insane sense of...I was going to say "choreography," but really, "life" would more sufficiently cover it, there's really, really nothing like The Gang's All Here. Even though the camp-fanatics have mostly claimed Berkeley as their own, I adore the purity and abandon of his expression, and, yes dammit, his humanism. On a sheer you-get-what-you-pay-for level, The Gang's All Here is full of sights you simply will not get anywhere else, and mix that with an eager sort of we're-all-in-this-together post-Depression wartime mentality, it's an unbeatably sincere bit of spectacle.

Who Done It? (Erle C. Kenton; 1942)

I don't know if I laughed more in a theater this year, but this is about as much fun as the movies get. Abbot and Costello play soda jerks who dream of writing radio mysteries, who then - get this - get embroiled in a murder mystery at their favorite radio station! That premise alone is the best thing ever, and that the movie doesn't simply coast on the genius of this device is reason alone to recommend it, never mind its continually-inventive, always entertaining, and seriously funny execution. Never mind the genuinely tense direction courtesy of Kenton (best known these days for 1932's Island of Lost Souls), which provides the perfect ballast that makes the jokes land even better, as they serve not only themselves but a release for the audience. Just about perfect.

Hellzapoppin' (H.C. Potter; 1941)

If Who Done It? and The Gang's All Here are studies in well-tuned, perfectly-executed bits of comedy and musical, Hellzapoppin' is a let's-throw-it-all-at-the-wall effort in seeing what sticks, and taking a joy in the mess we've made in the process. There's really no accounting for the film - the first ten minutes alone offer more inspired insanity than the sum total of most entire years of cinema - but given the difficulty in even seeing the thing, I feel little remorse in encouraging you all check out this clip from about midway through the film.

Cleopatra (Cecil B. DeMille; 1934)

DeMille is one of those guys, at least for me, who seems from a distance to be so satisfied with the spectacle he's capturing that the way in which he captures it could seem secondary. That's my failure as a viewer, I recognize (I'm not an "epics" guy by any stretch), but Cleopatra at least couldn't be more different. Well, I guess it could, it's just that the spectacle is so genuinely spectacular and almost poetic in its own way, and the human drama on display is as modern, knowing, and genuinely sexy as anything in the Pre-Code era (this barely made it in before the hammer came down). Claudette Colbert is, of course, ridiculously alluring, and who knew Warren William, best known as everyone's favorite amoral gangster/businessman/guy-in-suit would make such a damn good Julius Caesar?

Taxi! (Roy Del Ruth; 1932)

So now then, what was I saying about the 1930s and its vast wealth of entertainment and James Cagney being the best and that Roy Del Ruth fella ain't so bad himself? Taxi! is more evidence of this, because in addition to Cagney playing a smarmy cabbie who organizes a sort of union to oppose the mob muscling their way into the industry (awesome), this is the first time Cagney danced onscreen and a bit that lasts all of a few seconds in which Cagney and his pal enter the room tap-dancing is about as great as the cinema gets.

Okay, America! (Tay Garnett; 1932)

Before Sweet Smell of Success, when people were totally onboard with Walter Winchell and more than willing to make a film that was pretty obviously about him and in which he was the hero, there was Okay, America! The film ends up getting a little too big for its britches when the kidnapping plot that drives the film somehow ends up putting Larry Wayne (the Winchell stand-in, played wonderfully by Lew Ayres) in the office of the President (yes, of the United States), but up 'til that point it's a gas. Full of double-crosses, backroom deals, and the business of reporting the news, it also has one surreal touch that may very well have informed the entire aesthetic for the Coen Brothers.

Diary of a Lost Girl (G.W. Pabst; 1929)

I still haven't seen Pandora's Box (I know), but based on this alone, I am totally in the Pabst camp (well, as an artist anyway). And the Louise Brooks camp, for that matter, too. One of those fable-esque films that the silent era did so well, Diary of a Lost Girl is a revelation for any era, a total, unassailable masterpiece.

Wings (William A. Wellman; 1927)

There is very little about this film that isn't awesome, from its crazy production to the degree of its success to the very experience of watching it. Hardcore cinephiles are taught that the first Academy Awards marked a firm division that would guide it in the decades to come when they awarded (the better film) Sunrise the award for "Unique and Artistic Production" while Wings received the "real" Best Picture trophy for "Outstanding Production." Thus, Wings is the big crowd-pleasing picture while Sunrise is the "real" masterpiece. Except Wings is a real crowd-pleaser, so immensely satisfying to see, and representative of everything you could want from a night at the movies - humor, action, dancing, drunkenness, Clara Bow...seriously, this movie's got it all. And for a silent film that's 141 minutes long to remain this engaging over eighty years after it was, this is a movie.

Lonesome (Pál Fejös; 1928)

And so, rightfully, though in a somewhat contrived manner, we end with Pál Fejös' masterpiece, that film of films, Lonesome. Even with its awkwardly-inserted talking sequences, even with the mystery as to how much this represents Fejös' intentions (there are suggestions that it was originally shown with more color), and even though its discovery and newfound celebration is happening perhaps too late, it is fitting that it should have happened at all. This is a titanic achievement, as beautiful and moving as anything I've seen put to film, and quite a bit more so than many, many other efforts. That this came at the end of the silent era is perhaps fitting, as it takes advantage of every innovation that had come before it, and even though it being perched on the edge of the sound era resulted in those unfortunate talkie bits, it also gave Fejös a level of control over his soundtrack that previous filmmakers could have only dreamed of. That the barrage of imagery and sound is not an all-out assault is perhaps the best testament to the grace with which he executes his vision, and the result is one of the most purely romantic portraits ever given to a medium that thrives on that very emotion.

I'm already thirty-two films into my "discoveries of 2013" adventure, and I can already tell next year's list will be another grand adventure.


Joel Bocko said...

Oh man, a post after my own heart. To wit:

You sum up the mysterious world of Satantango (half-imagined, half-arrestingly real and in-the-moment) perfectly. I adore My Dinner with Andre, and I'm usually more a documentary guy when it comes to Malle but this perfectly captures the joyously investigative, open-to-the-world qualities of his nonfiction films, in which he burrows into the ground and discovers hidden treasure troves beneath the surface.

Rivette is a director who, like Tarr but in very different ways, totally reinvents cinematic time. Celine & Julie is one of my favorites, a film to think about as well as experience (true of all his movies even though I tend to think of his films as visceral/immediate more than cerebral). Haven't seen Phantom of Paradise but I relate to the 'snippets of de Palma' thing, he's a director who's grown on me slowly (though I'm a fan now) despite my always loving Scarface. I did a video tribute to him a few years back along the same line - highlighting moments and forming an impressionistic, thematically-driven montage that remains perhaps my favorite thing I've done online:

And Daisies...with the exception of Fists in the Pocket, I've covered that film more than any other on my own site. Just infectious in its energy and invention. I liked Chytilova's entry in Pearls of the Deep too, which I saw recently for the first time. I love directors who let form lead. The Markers are wonderful, of course (I love that moment when the eyes blink in La Jetee), I can't help but have a major crush on Samoylova in Cranes, and Letter is definitely my favorite Ophuls, with Fontane very winsome. Love Brooks in Diary, though I like Pandora's Box even more (I think you'll love that one). And I'm salivating over Lonesome, which I've yet to see, after reading your write-up and another.

On the debit side, Hellzapoppin left me utterly cold after eager anticipation (I'd read Halliwell's recap in an old favorites book but I laughed much harder at the page than the screen) and I find Anatomy overblown and vaguely distasteful. But you can't win 'em all.

Wonderfully readable write-up that makes me want to see the ones I hadn't even heard of, and also to compose my own list of favorite first-time-in-2012 classics. Atop the list would be The Long Day Closes on the big screen, Histoires du cinema and Story of Film on DVD, and Me and My Gal, John Berger's BBC series Ways of Seeing, and Shoah on You Tube.

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